A Yukon woman who died in 2010 has been confirmed as the first Indigenous woman to have been ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. The distinction belongs to the Rev. Ellen Bruce, who was made a priest in 1987, says General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn. Bruce, of the Gwich’in people of northwest Canada and Alaska, was ordained a deacon in 1985 and a priest in 1987, when she was in her late 70s. She had already served as a spiritual leader at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Old Crow, Yukon, where she made her home, for several decades. That Bruce was a trailblazer for Anglican Indigenous women has been recognized before, Hurn says. In 1990, she was named a Member of the Order of Canada; according to the Order of Canada website, Bruce was “the North’s first native woman to be ordained an Anglican minister.”
But it was only earlier this June that General Synod archivists were able to confirm with their counterparts in Anglican diocesan archives across Canada that no other Indigenous woman had been ordained an Anglican priest in Canada earlier than Bruce. The process was set in motion by Hurn’s colleague at national office, Indigenous ministries co-ordinator Canon Ginny Doctor. Doctor says she was recently invited to sit on a panel for an event marking the 80th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman in the United Church of Canada, and thought it would be good to know when the first Anglican Indigenous woman was ordained. She asked Hurn, who checked national office archives but was unable to confirm from the information there. A request for more information from diocesan archives followed soon after. Doctor says she will be recognizing Bruce and other Indigenous trailblazers in the church at a display booth at General Synod, when it meets in Richmond Hill, Ont., July 7-12. These include the first Indigenous man ordained as an Anglican priest in Canada, the Rev. Henry Budd (c. 1812-1875), who was priested in 1853.
Learning about the hardships of those who paved the way for the church in the North, Doctor says, helped sustain her years ago while she herself was serving as a priest in Alaska. “They not only thrived, but they helped the people thrive in terms of faith,” she says. “They were my inspiration for keeping going.”
Similarly, she says, one goal of recognizing people like Bruce and Budd is to encourage other would-be Indigenous spiritual leaders in the church by their example.
“I know what those kinds of stories did for me. And so I’m just thinking that if we begin to tell the stories of how our folks survived in proclaiming the faith, and what they had to do, it might inspire others to do the same.” Bruce was 98 when she died in 2010. According to Yukon News, she was born in Rampart House, a trading post. She grew up living in a tent with her family as it followed a traditional nomadic way of life, surviving by following game across the tundra, but eventually settled in Old Crow.
In an interview with the Anglican Journal, the Rev. Marion Schafer, vocational deacon at St. Luke’s, said she had known Bruce as long as she could remember, because Bruce had been a close friend of her mother. “She was a strong, traditional woman. A Christian woman. And spiritual,” Schafer said. Bruce was widely respected and took her role as a spiritual leader very seriously, Schafer said, continuing to do church work until the last year or so of her life, when her failing health made it impossible. Bruce at times grieved the fact that she had never attended public school, Schafer said, but she and others in the community encouraged Bruce by reminding her of the value of her ability to conduct services in Gwich’in.
“I think for me, too, she was my inspiration,” Schafer said. “One really important message she left with us a couple of days before she passed away…was, ‘Don’t ever quit the work you’re doing in church.’ And she used to pray with us, even though she was on her deathbed.”